With the uprising in Iran using Twitter, there’s been a lot of Twitter triumphalism running amok hither and yon through the intertubez. Tom Watson has a very nice takedown, but there are two other themes worth discussing: the conduit by itself isn’t revolutionary; and, a medium with 140 characters shreds the culture of political literacy required to overturn existing political orders.
Stirling Newberry observes:
Twitter is a pager for the Web 2.0, and useful in the same way that pagers are. By the same measure, pagers are only as useful as the people on the ends. They do not add to the conversation. The real revolutionary tools of this moment are much less heralded: smartphones and proxies. It was the smartphones that had the cameras that made instant documentation possible – Tweets don’t even have pictures – and the opening of proxies and the “small pieces loosely joined” ethos that David Weinberger, author of the “cluetrain manifesto” put forward. To the extent that Twitter helped create those far loose joins, it was able to rapidly color the internet green….
The real power from Iran has been the stomach wrenching pictures, and the people who have gone into the jaws of danger to extract them…. Twitter’s joining could have been accomplished by other tools. People often talk about talking, without realizing that talking itself is not a substitute for action.
But glorification of a pager system is far less troublesome than what the ‘Twitterization’ of politics means for our political language. Driftglass, describing a conference he attended, explains the political limitations of the medium (boldface drifty’s; italics mine):
For fun, I checked out the row where I was sitting. Based on my unscientific survey, in that row at any given time during the 3.5 hour conference, seven out of nine people were busy texting/surfing/twittering. Not briefly or glancingly, but fairly steadily….
…there was something half-ominous/ half -funny about being in an auditorium with people who had given up the better part of a beautiful Saturday to discuss the Very Important subject of the future of the fourth estate…an amazingly high percentage of whom were clearly unable to pay patient attention to what was happening right in front of them for more than a few minutes at a stretch.
From entertainification, to the price of paper, to the collapse of ad revenue, to an unsustainable, debt-based business model, there are certainly a lot of knife wounds in journalism’s gut, but one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is this: the radical narrowing, shortening and dumbing-down of the apertures through which knowledge itself passes.
….consider the Twitter-max of 140 characters, you get cut off before the end first sentence of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural (a speech in which he assures his audience that he’s going to keep it short)…
…whatever else it [Twitter] is, it isn’t listening, and in that just-in-time, bullet-point, “gimme the elevator version”-saturated world, the first casualty of narrative is context.
And of shorn context, “news” ceases to “the voice of the voiceless”, “the information you need as a citizen in a democracy” or even “what happened” and becomes mere noise.
I would take it further: Twitter-style communication inhibits the ability to create an oppositional subculture, and then to (successfully) communicate the values of that subculture to a larger group. To do that, you need discussion, thoroughness, and context. 140 characters won’t do that.
After all, the Republicans have embraced Twitter, and, as far as I can tell, it’s done very little other than alert the rest of us to daily GOP bigot eruptions (the ongoing revelation of the GOP id is useful for the Coalition of the Sane, but definitely not intended by those tweeting).
To put this another way, one can tweet the phrase “I have a dream”, but not the “I Have a Dream” speech–and it’s the whole speech that matters.